Election 2020: Making Sure Your Vote Will Count

State officials move forward with plans for an election that’s mostly vote by mail, even as GOP challenge is still pending in federal court
Credit: (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)
July 7, 2020: In Newark, a woman places her mail-in ballot into a drop box for the primary elections.

A lawsuit seeking to derail New Jersey’s plan for a general election conducted mostly by mail is still pending, but Democrats negated one of the Republicans’ major arguments with Gov. Phil Murphy’s signing of three bills, including one that codifies his executive order changing the way balloting will be done on Nov. 3.

“We feel very strongly about our position on the proposed hybrid model for elections this November,” Murphy said Monday during a media briefing on the COVID-19 crisis.

Last Friday, Murphy signed the trio of election-related bills designed to make it easier for voters to return their ballots without having to use the mail system, give them a way to fix potential problems with their votes and, by enacting the change through law rather than executive order, undermine a key legal point in the GOP’s bid to force a traditional in-person election.

Still, there is another argument made by the Trump campaign, Republican National Committee and New Jersey Republican State Committee in their suit against the state: The system will violate the 14th Amendment of the US Constitution by depriving individuals of their right to vote. But administration officials expressed confidence they will prevail in court and that the election can go forward in a manner similar to the July 7 primary.

Murphy said he would not comment specifically on the lawsuit, but pointed out that people have options in how they vote. They can return a mail-in ballot either via the Postal Service, use a secure ballot drop box — each county will have at least 10 of these — or drop it off at an open polling location on Nov. 3. Additionally, half the polling places in each county will be open, with at least one location open in virtually every municipality, allowing people to vote in-person on Election Day using a provisional ballot.

“With respect to our confidence in how the election will be handled, we fully expect it to be handled in the way that the governor just described, which is now a matter of state law,” said Matt Platkin, Murphy’s chief counsel.

Justin Clark, deputy campaign manager for the reelection campaign of President Donald Trump, said the campaign is continuing to press the lawsuit, which he hailed as a “victory for the rule of law.”

“The Trump campaign was absolutely right to challenge Governor Murphy’s illegal power grab,” he said. “Liberal governors across America are on notice: quit attempting to unilaterally and fundamentally change the way your citizens vote. This legislative move is the liberal lawmakers’ clear admission that the Trump campaign is right: Governor Murphy acted illegally in his power grab to unilaterally and fundamentally change the way New Jerseyans vote.”

Making your vote count

Here is a breakdown of what is to happen next, and steps voters can take to ensure they will be able to vote and do it properly.

If you have not voted in a while or have moved or are otherwise unsure about whether you are registered, check your registration now on the state Division of Elections’ website or call your county clerk’s office. This will also show your status; if it is inactive, it will be easier to vote this year if you change that to active by getting in touch with your county clerk’s office as soon as possible.

“Your county election officials, I always recommend them as your first point of contact,” said Uyen “Winn” Khuong, the executive director of Action Together New Jersey who operates the website VotebymailNJ.org that includes a host of information about voting in New Jersey.

Anyone who is not yet registered or needs to change a registration can find postage-paid registration forms for all 21 counties here. The deadline for registering to vote is Oct. 13.

The first space on the form allows you to make changes to your registration — to change your name, address or declare a party to vote in a primary, for instance. It also allows for a person whose signature has changed significantly due to age, a disability or another reason to get their current one on file.

Ensuring that your signature matches what is on file is an important way to ensure that your ballot will be accepted in November. A mismatched signature is among the most common reason for rejection of a mail-in ballot. There was a process enabling voters to fix signature issues during the primary — and it’s being expanded for the general election. But it’s better for voters to be proactive, particularly given the ballot “cure” process requires county officials to send a letter to the voter and mail deliveries may continue to be delayed in the fall.

Timing is important

Every active voter in both parties and those unaffiliated — more than 5.7 million New Jerseyans — should automatically receive a ballot in the mail this fall. Under the new law, these must be sent 29 days prior to the election, or by Oct. 5. Some counties may send them out earlier. You should look for your ballot around that time and if you haven’t received one by Oct. 9, Khuong suggests contacting your county to find out where your ballot is or possibly get a replacement.

If your registration is marked inactive — typically because you have not voted in one of the last two federal elections or because election mail sent to your address was returned to the county as undeliverable — you will not automatically get a ballot. About 490,000 people across the state had an inactive registration status as of mid-August, according to an NJSpotlight analysis of the state’s voter database.

Inactive voters can still vote by mail, but they are going to have to request a ballot, either by contacting their county clerk or by using the voter registration form and checking the vote-by-mail box. It is best to try to correct such issues early, given that some deadlines and procedures have changed for this election.

Because every active voter is getting a ballot automatically, most people will not receive a separate sample ballot, since the vote-by-mail ballot is a representation of what would normally appear in the voting booth. Even so, you should receive a notification by postcard or letter with information about how to get or view a sample ballot, the locations of drop boxes within the county and the location of your polling place should you choose to vote in person using a provisional ballot. These are to be mailed by Oct. 23.

Inactive voters, in particular, should not let that serve as a voting reminder though, because Oct. 23 is also the last date by which to request a mail-in ballot.

Those voters, or anyone who prefers to vote in person, can do so on Nov. 3, provided they are properly registered, at one of the locations open in their town.